Chris Zane is in the experience business. Whether it's selling bikes in his Connecticut store or filling orders for corporate rewards programs, he knows a successful business is about more than just selling stuff. Zane, 46, got his start at age 12 fixing bikes in his parents' East Haven, Connecticut, garage. At 16, he convinced his parents to let him take over the lease of a bike shop going out of business, borrowing $23,000 from his grandfather—at 15 percent interest. His mother tended the store while he was at school in the mornings. In his first year, he racked up $56,000 in sales. This year, he expects to bring in $21 million.
With the current obsession with label-reading and organic ingredients, surely there must be dozens of organic baby food brands, right? That's what Los Angeles moms (and friends) Liane Weintraub and Shannan Swanson thought. But they were wrong. The pair started making organic purees for their own babies and couldn't believe how few options were available in stores. So Weintraub, 42, a local TV reporter, and Swanson, 38, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and former cook at one of Wolfgang Puck's restaurants, got inspired to fill it. Today the brand is carried at Whole Foods, Fairway, Tops, and other chains. The company turned a profit four years after its founding, and it's on track for sales of $2.5 million this year.
When George Vlagos was in middle school, his father, a cobbler, would have him come into his Chicago shop to shine shoes every Saturday. John Vlagos, a Greek immigrant, was hoping to show his son that working with your hands is difficult and that he should find a different profession. Well, it backfired. The jobs that made it possible for him to afford a pair of nice shoes ended up driving him back to the family craft when he realized how difficult it was to find a pair of quality shoes. He decided to design his own. Today, there is a six-week wait list for a pair. "It blows my mind that people are walking the streets in New York, in Chicago, in other countries, wearing something that I designed," says Vlagos.
Limor Fried, who earned her masters in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, runs Adafruit industries, which sells do-it-yourself electronics kits. For every kit Adafruit sells, Fried posts design files, schematics for circuit boards, and any software code needed. She welcomes people to use the information, and sees it as a way to foster innovation. "People want to see the world become a better place through science and engineering," Fried says. "We're going to need the current and future generations to get inspired." Fried launched her company in 2005 with $10,000 that was supposed to go to her tuition. Any time she made a profit, she made a tuition payment. Today, the company ships between 150 to 200 orders a day, some of them worth thousands of dollars.
Kenny Lao and David Weber met in 2002 when they were both students at NYU's Stern School of Business. They joined forces to enter the Rickshaw concept in a business plan competition in 2004. (They placed second behind a scrap-booking company that was never heard from again, as far as they know.) The partners opened their first store in 2005. Soon after, they opened a second, which quickly proved to be too ambitious. "It was a really dark time," Lao says. "It almost bankrupted us," Weber adds. After they closed that location, they decided to try a food truck—and the success was almost immediate. Their trucks produced the steady cash flow that made a second go at brick-and-mortar expansion possible. The business has grown to 70 employees, and the partners hope to double revenue this year.
In 1994, Erin Baker began making healthy breakfast cookies. "One day I caught a call from a woman asking for the nutritionals—we were selling them naked in a jar at Quality Food Centers," remembers Baker (and yes, that is her real last name). The woman figured out the cookies were only two Weight Watchers points and word quickly spread. How quickly? In a year (1999), Baker's business went from two employees to 100. Then, Weight Watchers suddenly changed its points system. In a period of eight months, the company lost about 60 percent of its distribution. How did the bakery recover? Two words: New products. She says they moved away from the diet crowd—"we realized they were fickle," says Baker. "It's been very successful for us."
Scott Harrison didn't like the fact that things like toothpaste had better marketing campaigns than lifesaving causes. There were a few other things that he thought he could change. So at 30 Harrison founded charity: water, which brings clean drinking water to developing nations. One goal was to make sure that the branding wouldn't suck. When Harrison was 28, he had the realization that he was a "selfish scumbag" while on vacation in Uruguay. He thought he had everything he wanted: Model girlfriends, a Rolex, a BMW. But he wasn't satisfied. To date, charity: water has funded 3,962 water projects, providing access to clean, safe drinking water for 1,794,983 people in 19 countries. Harrison's goal now? Raise $2 billion to help 100 million people in the next 10 years.
Jason Toews and Dustin Coupal saw a need for a site to help people find the cheapest local gas prices and founded GasBuddy.com in June of 2000. At the time, Toews was working as a computer programmer and Coupal was an eye doctor. The partners nurtured the website over the course of the next decade, persuading drivers to log in and share gas prices—not an ideal situation, of course. Then, in 2009, the partners realized the potential of mobile apps. So the company launched Android and iPhone apps later that year, and they were instantly popular. Today, six million people have downloaded there apps. And though the website still draws more traffic, the number of users who come to GasBuddy through a mobile device should soon surpass those who experience the brand online.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Oren Bloostein—a Long Island, New York, native—moved to New York City and found a job at Saks Fifth Avenue, working in corporate retail. It was 1979, Bloostein was 23, and he was completely miserable. "I wanted to be somewhere where I didn't have to report to 15 people," he says. So he quit his job in 1984 and founded Oren's Daily Roast in 1986. With a $50,000 gift from his parents, $30,000 in personal savings, and a loan of $25,000, Bloostein opened his first location in a 400-square-foot shop at 1574 First Avenue on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Twenty-five years later, Oren's Daily Roast is a near-$10 million business.
When Joanna Meiseles took her son Ben, now 20, for his first haircut, she wanted it to be special. She even brought along a camcorder to make videos to show his grandparents. "It wasn't so much a bad experience," says Meiseles. "But it wasn't everything I hoped it would be." So Meiseles set out to create the "most amazing place for a kid to get a haircut." Snip-its is now the largest salon focused on children's haircuts in the country, with 63 locations and plans for U.K. franchises in the works. Back in 1995, when the first location was opened in Framingham, Massachusettes, Meiseles saw it as a prototype. "I immediately saw something that could be big," she says.